Friday, March 22, 2013

Black Playwrights

Both Baraka and Neals' pieces were thought provoking and powerful, especially in terms of thinking forward to today in a space where consumers are desensitized to and so far removed from the idea and necessity of ongoing racial revolutionary movements.  I consider the Black Arts Movement a resurgence, thinking backwards to the Harlem Renaissance and the emergence of Black Art in the '20s.  In Baraka's "Revolutionary Theatre", he emphasized the significance of realism as having a shock and awe quality, causing the White audience to become uncomfortable and the Black audience to become aware or enlightened.  Baraka (The Black Art Theatre) and later, playwright August Wilson (Black Horizon Theater) , opened Black theaters as a space for Black artists to exhibit their work, and in Baraka's case, against White or American art.  I would like to believe however, that these revolutionary Black productions would be more impactful outside of a Black space, or outside of spaces that would isolate Blackness.  Instead the productions, plays, choreography, music, art, should be exhibited in a space historically inhabited by its adversary; there's nothing more shocking than a Black person repeatedly saying Nigger in a room filled with White people.    

And language and meaning are two proponents of Art in which Neal discusses as being necessary in the Black Arts Movement, "A main tenet of Black Power is the necessity for Black people to define the world in their own terms.  The Black artist has made the same point in the context of aesthetics.  The two movements postulate that there are in fact and in spirit two Americas-- one black, one white.  The Black artist takes this to mean that his primary duty is to speak to the spiritual and cultural needs of Black people,"(Neal, 29) and I wholly agree with this point.  This power calls for the same Double Consciousness in African Americans that Dubois introduced.

Baraka's Black Theater essay reminded me of Wilson's Fences (1985) that I believe I read in the eleventh or twelfth grade.  The play is set in the '50s and explores the tensions within a Black family that are projected from the racist society around them, centering around an allegorical fence.  I found a Youtube video of "Fences" that compares two broadway performances of James earl Jones as the lead character Troy, and then Denzel Washington as Troy.  I found it quite interesting the sentiment of the audiences during each performance of the same scene.  The original performance with Jones was more serious in tone and audience reception, while there was laughter during Washington's performance, thus this desensitized audience.

What kind of racial revolutionary movements would provoke or insight action today?     


  1. Dayna, you make a compelling point about the power of black revolutionary theater outside a black environment. I agree that if the point is to shock white folks out of their complicity with a violently oppressive system, they've got to hear the message and be forced to be uncomfortable. However, there is always the risk that the audience will not receive the material in the ways the playwright would have hoped, as you astutely noted about the laughter during Washington's performance.

    I think this takes us back to the issue of black comedy performance we've touched on in class discussion. I've certainly been uncomfortable watching a Chappelle's Show sketch with another white person who laughs at what I perceive to be the wrong moment, laughing with racism instead of laughing at the expense of racists. Perhaps there is still a place for exclusive black theater and also insurgent black theater that seeks a white audience. Unfortunately, I feel a lot of symbolic violence can be done by a white audience positioning themselves above the artistic material rather than questioning their own position while consuming an artistic form.

  2. Hey Dayna,

    After reading your post it remained me of unedited songs being played in public spaces. I've been in places where I heard the word nigga multiple times in a song in predominantly white arenas. I have several responses to this. The first being it's really awkward and uncomfortable. It feels like everyone looks at people of color in the room to view their reactions. I don't usually react to it because I want to avoid making a scene. I personally don't list to edited music. I imagine that most people don't either otherwise there would be a different reaction to the songs. I does cross my mind that unedited songs shouldn't be played in predominately white arenas because of the historical context.

    What actions should be taken and where does the responsibility lie?

  3. Dayna, you provide a really good summary and analysis of both Baraka and Neal's essays. I like your discussion of the use of 'space' here, something we have touched upon a lot in class. I think you are right in your argument that the revolutionary theater would have even more of an impact in a predominantly white space due to the shock value it would create here. This reminded me of the song we listened to in class a little while ago, where a female singer screams at the end (I forget who the singer was) and our class discussion about the discomfort it could cause within a white audience. This is what I like about the Black Arts Movement; it is not so sterile and is rather changeable and quite spiritual. It impacts the audience and the 'space' around it while also being itself impacted by the audience and the 'space.' I think we can find similarities here to the poetry we will be discussing in class tomorrow, especially since poetry is an important art form for the Black Arts Movement.

  4. Dayna,

    Thanks so much for posting a clip from _Fences_. I really tried to fit a play by August Wilson into this course but had to take it off. As you note, _Fences_ is his 1950s play. It deals obliquely and allegorically with issues of segregation, approaching these most concretely through Troy's memories of playing baseball, while the fence is a symbolic marker to social divisions and exclusions. Wilson is a storyteller playwright par excellence. Unlike Baraka's, his plays have much more dialog and their structure is formally more traditional. However, Wilson is an inheritor of Black Arts cultural nationalism and tenets, and as you tell us, cofounded the Black Horizons Theater in the late 60s in Pittsburgh to bring community-based and Afrocentric productions to the city. However, his plays now are not often considered to be part of this artistic or theatrical tradition which is interesting. He has achieved so much critical, academic, and popular success. I believe most of his plays have been produced for a run in a Broadway ("the great white way") at least once. He had a home for many years at the Yale Rep with director Lloyd Richards--an institution that offers a space for the development of plays through the stages of their creation.

    The clip is brilliant. The comparison of how this scene can be performed in multiple ways as well as the subsequent audience response is so interesting. Of course a lot rests on the shoulders of how the two actors are perceived. Jones has a physical gravitas that Washington cannot easily approximate because he is smaller and his voice is not as deep. Each actor reads Troy differently--Jones's Troy is stern, while Washington's Troy uses humorous intonations in order to imply an understanding about class and the father's "duties."

    I am glad several classmates took up your question because it is a great one! Particularly in the context of Wilson's plays which participate in the "elite" theatrical sphere. Can Wilson's plays insight action? If so, what kind? Wilson was a great believer in the theater as providing and extending values. He was a vocal opponent of colorblind casting, arguing instead for the creation of all-black theater companies and the institutional support for black theater and black playwrights. He distinguished this support from casting black actors in roles traditionally played by white actors, such as leads in Shakespeare's plays, in _Death of a Salesman_, et cetera. This position was pretty controversial in the late-1990s when he made it, which seems to me to beg several questions about the role of multiculturalism in arts funding and the work that narratives of inclusion do in the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries.


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